Monthly Archives: April 2008

The Blue Star by Tony Earley

The Blue Star is the story of Jim the Boy as a high school senior, against the background of Pearl Harbor. I picked it up because I had loved Jim the Boy and I was disappointed: The Blue Star is full of cliched characters and situations: the poor but proud coed, the war hero who isn’t, the marriage forced by an early pregnancy, the exploitative landlord – and never seems to rise above them, although the writing is as limpid as in the original. Perhaps it is because Jim never quite finds the right voice for an eighteen-year old; he’s at turn too childish (would his mother really punish him for a trivial lie?) or too manly. 

The book does contain a wonderfully bad, hackneyed high school commencement address, if you go for that sort of things.

Read Jim the Boy instead!

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Intern by Sandeep Jauhar

Intern is a dark description of medical internships by the author, who interestingly completed a Ph.D. in Physics before embarking on that career. It’s a brutal tale of stupendously long hours, enormous responsibilities put upon very green interns, errors due to poor communications and attrocious record-keeping systems, and decisions occasionally made for egotistic rather than scientific reasons.

Do not read this book before checking into a teaching hospital: it makes you wonder how anyone gets out alive… Do read before embarking into medical school: heavy sleepers beware! Interestingly the author does not comment on the wonderful mood lift between the first and second year of internship: it’s amazing what more sleep and more knowledge can do to an individual.

It does make me wonder about the wisdom of reforming physicians’ education (and the book takes place after the restrictions on work hours were put in place!)

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Gardens of Water by Alan Drew

Gardens of Water is a doomed love story between a convervative Turkish very young woman and an American teenager whose father has served as a school principal and aid worker in Turkey for many years. Despite valiant efforts to make it sound authentic, complete with a pronunciation guide to Turkish (who knew there would be letters whose only function is to elongate others’ sound?) the book reads like “My Wonderful Trip to Turkey by Joe American”, which I guess is what it is…

There are two wonderfully captured characters: the American teenager, whose demeanor and attachment to his Walkman (the story is set many years ago: today it would be an iPod) and utter cluelessness about the culture gap feel completely genuine; and the girl’s younger brother who is 11, soccer-obsessed, and desperately seeking love and harmony.

Also noteworthy is a description of the workings of the local Carrefour, a French supermarket chain, and how it’s positioned to appeal to the local middle class.

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Fatal Misconception by Matthew Connelly

Fatal Misconception discusses the long and often inglorious history of birth control and population control including eugenics and the dismal forced sterilization and forced abortion programs in India and China.  It’s written by a historian and keeps to a learned approach of the topic, which suggests that population control is less dependent on availability of contraception or coercive government program that the simple desire or not for couples to have large families. In other words, if popular wisdom is that two children is a good number most families will have two children. (The author nicely points out that he’s the eighth child in his family.) And women’s education seem to be closely related to that ideal family size, with more education correlating to smaller families.

I read this book immediately after Swize’s Test (see last post) and I could not help but see the parallel between obligatory birth control and mandatory AIDS tests. Perhaps the best approach to AIDS is to make health care available, to be sure, but to conduct a vigorous education campaign about it.

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Sizwe’s test by Jonny Steinberg

Sizwe’s Test talks about AIDS and AIDS treatment in Africa through the eyes of an apparently healthy, successful (very) small businessman who guides the author through South Africa’s patchy and overwhelmed medical infrastructure, assisted by Medecin Sans Frontieres without which there would not be much of a program at all, at least in the area under consideration.

If you ever wondered about medical care in poor countries, you will get a sobering look at how simple infrastructure problems such as bad roads and power cuts can easily wreck programs that must handle prodigious patient loads (the village seems to have a 20% infection rate!) and battle persistent myths of AIDS being caused by bewitching or by the tests themselves.

Throughout the book, the author wonders whether Sizwe will get tested (and urges him to do so.) I could not help but wonder why. Sizwe is healthy and his girlfriend, who is pregnant, did get tested and tested negative, so why should he get tested? If he were white and lived elsewhere, would he get badgered in that way?

Despite this flaw, a very informative account of the challenges of third-world health care.

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Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson

Out Stealing Horses are the memories of a 60-something who settles in an isolated farm after his wife’s death after a life in the city. The farm is close to where he spent summers with his father shortly after WWII, lost a friend, lost his dad, and learned about his dad’s resistance past and other secrets.

It’s always difficult to get a feel for a translated book. This one is very matter of fact: the man gets up, makes his breakfast, walks his dog, is worried about snow. Not much happens in the book, at least in the present: the past is tumultuous, if often hazy. And there are very few words: all the action, as little as there is, occurs in the character’s mind.

I found the book to be a very effective reminder of how wars mark not just their actors, but the next generations.

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The Sexual Paradox by Susan Pinker

The Sexual Paradox asks a simple question: if women are not reaching the higher levels of the business and academic hierarchies, perhaps it’s because they somehow do not want or are not built to aspire to them and to make the sacrifices in their private lives that such positions inevitably require.

Just like Obama can talk freely about race, the author can advance her theories because she’s a woman (see what happened to Larry Summers when he attempted – clumsily to be sure – to make a similar argument.) Some of what she says makes sense, especially in the first part of the book: women are clearly wired different from men. They can tune in to others’ concerns better, which is an advantage when it comes to social situations but  can be a distratction when reaching for those top jobs.

However, I myself frustrated by the book. It seems to rely mostly on anecdotes from high-powered women who “dropped out” and seem compelled to explain that they never encountered a glass ceiling. Where, I wonder, did these women work? It’s all well and good to believe that women and men are wired differently (and I would agree) but to deny any glass ceiling? Sorry, I can’t buy that, not at this point.

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